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How to Choose Which Software to Use for Your Online Store

Laura MacPherson February 1, 2018

There are over 120 e-commerce platforms and shopping cart software programs. How do you know which software to use for your online store? Some are better than others (some are downright awful), and they each have their pros and cons. To make the right decision for your company, you’ll want to first get a picture of the landscape, and then evaluate what features and functionality align with your needs.

E-Commerce Platform or Shopping Cart Software?

Before you get too far into your research, you’ll discover that you have two main options for your online store. You can go with a full, all-in-one e-commerce solution, or you can simply add a shopping cart onto your existing website.  

Use a Simple Shopping Cart If. . .

A shopping cart plugin or extension is a great way to add a few merchant tools and payment processing to your already-existing website. If you’re just starting to explore the world of e-commerce and you’re not sure how far you want to go with it, a shopping cart can be a good choice.

WooCommerce is a popular shopping cart plugin for WordPress, and many small businesses are using it. It’s ideal for those who are selling digital products as downloadables, since it offers an instant download option. It supports affiliate sales and offers the ability to display real-time payment calculations.

PayPal also offers a simple shopping cart that’s respected by shoppers. It gives merchants the option to display branded “Add to Cart” and “View Cart” buttons, with payments processed through PayPal or any credit or debit card.

Use an E-Commerce Platform If. . .

E-commerce software solutions are designed to give you everything your online store needs to succeed. They provide design tools, storefront setup, payment processing, merchant tools, and security. Many offer additional marketing tools that help you raise awareness and attract your target audience. Most can also integrate with your existing website, giving you plenty of flexibility if you’re converting. E-commerce platforms offer tools and features for those who are planning to grow their online stores.

Two Types of E-Commerce Platforms to Choose From

Within the e-commerce platform category, there are two subcategories that you’ll want to be familiar with:

  • Hosted solution (a SaaS-model solution that allows you to build and host your store on the provider’s server for a monthly fee)
  • Licensed software (an off-the-shelf solution that you download and install on your server, which can be fully customized by a developer)

The Pros and Cons of a Hosted E-Commerce Solution

A hosted solution is the easiest and fastest way to get an e-commerce site up and running on your own. You simply sign up, choose a template, and start adding your products or services to your new site.

Most hosted solutions charge a one-time setup fee, and after that you pay a monthly fee to keep your site operational. Most also offer limited design customization options.

Shopify is a popular hosted e-commerce solution that many people recommend. Their customer support is highly rated, and the consensus is that their website builder is very easy to use. Shopify offers a wide selection (over 100) of premium themes for a professionally-designed look. Even at the basic level, Shopify provides built-in payment and fraud analysis tools, SSL certificates, and 24/7 support.

BigCommerce is another commonly-used solution. It compares quite similarly to Shopify with a couple of differences. While BigCommerce doesn’t have as many high-quality themes to offer, their platform does have more advanced tools for additional customization.

Pros of a Hosted E-Commerce Solution

Quick and Easy Setup — You don’t need any development experience to get started with a hosted e-commerce solution. And because most of the work is already done for you, it’s relatively fast to set up your store and launch it.

No Need to Think About Maintenance — The software company will handle updates and bug fixes automatically, included in the monthly fee.

Cons of a Hosted E-Commerce Solution

Limited Customization Options — While most platforms give you a variety of layout options and allow you to change your theme’s colors, fonts, etc., significant customization isn’t possible. For this reason, you’ll want to make sure that the platform and theme you choose have exactly what you need, out of the box. Don’t forget to look for built-in SEO optimization, specifically.

Monthly Fees and Commission Cuts — You must continue to pay the ongoing, monthly fee to keep your store up and operational. Also, some platforms take a commission from every sale, which adds up over time, cutting into your profits. You’re also locked into the platform’s proprietary software, making it difficult to move your site if you decide to.

When to Choose a Hosted E-Commerce Solution

A hosted solution is a good choice for those who want to get up and running immediately, and who don’t want to hire a developer to help build the site.

The Pros and Cons of Licensed E-Commerce Software

The biggest benefit of licensed software is its customizability. You can use your preferred hosting provider and install the software on your server, giving you full control.

Some platforms are open-source, making them free. Others require you to make a one-time purchase of the software, which you can then use as long as you like. Many offer full support with a monthly fee.

Magento is the software that we use and recommend. It’s an open-source, PHP-based software with wide adoption and excellent developer resources. It’s incredibly flexible, allowing you to customize the functionality in any way you like. You have total control over your online store, from the appearance to order management. Magento has robust SEO tools and layered navigation options. The checkout process is user-friendly, fast, and has almost no distractions, meaning that you’ll have fewer abandoned cart scenarios.

Zen Cart is another popular open-source platform that, although not as robust as Magento, is still a good choice because it’s a little easier for those who aren’t experienced to manage. It has a history of satisfied users.

Pros of Licensed E-Commerce Software

Customization Options — Most licensed software platforms offer customization options (although some are more customizable than others, as mentioned above). Simply hire an experienced programmer who knows how to work with your platform of choice, and you can make nearly any change to the software that you want.

Lower Ongoing Cost — In many cases, you’ll purchase the licence at a one-time price, and then you are free to use the software without additional fees. With open-source software, you won’t need to pay anything to use the software.

More Professional Appearance — Because the software is completely customizable, you can create an optimized, seamless experience for your users.

Cons of Licensed E-Commerce Software

You Need Expert Help — To build a site with licensed software, you need someone with a working knowledge of server architecture, security, and programming. It’s best to hire a development company with all of these specialists on staff, giving you access to professional expertise.

You’re Responsible for Updates — Unless you hire a development company who will handle the software updates for you (which we highly recommend), you open yourself up to security vulnerabilities if you forget to install patches.

When to Choose Licensed E-Commerce Software

If you want a site that offers an exceptional user experience and looks fully professional, you’ll need to hire a company to create a custom site or a site using license e-commerce software.

Want to chat with us about which solution you should choose for your online store? Get in touch!

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